I spent a lot of my senior year in high school hanging out with my two gay friends. No, I don’t mean “two of my gay friends.” As I’ve covered in the entries from those years, prior to college and the internet, that aspect of my life was a tiny island in a vast sea. As with the search for alien life, it seems statistically impossible that we were the ONLY non-heterosexuals in our high school of 600ish, and I sometimes speculate about who might have been in the closet looking out at us and wondering, as I did, if it would be safe to knock on the door from the inside for one of us to open it. But if anyone did, those two kept the secret. As far as I knew it was us three. And mostly it was those two; I always felt like a little bit of a third wheel, being bi and actively dating girls, which was the only real option for me at the time.
So our access to gay culture was pretty limited. Our only channel tended to be, of all things, the local video store. The first time I saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show was on VHS. We watched it in silence, having no notion of the audience participation element. We had no idea how we were supposed to feel about Brad or Janet or Riff; we just saw Frank as the tragic hero of the piece and our audience identification character.
The other film we rented a lot was the Merchant-Ivory adaptation of E.M. Forster’s Maurice, notable for featuring a young Hugh Grant as the gay title character’s bisexual lover at university and eventual rejector. Scriptwriters take note: that’s what a bisexual man is for, to betray your gay male heroes and deceive your straight female heroines. No wonder I felt like the third wheel most of the time.
I was never a big Wizard of Oz fan, but among the many reasons “friend of Dorothy” used to be such an apt euphemism is that most every gay kid in a small town like ours at the time we grew up was stuck in Munchkinland (or, worse, Kansas), staring wistfully at that yellow brick road, knowing it leads them out of the doldrums and all the way to the Emerald City, just waiting their chance to set out on the journey. Even though my journey and destination were going to be a little different, I was stuck along with them and for a lot of the same reasons.
The debut album by Scissor Sisters feels exactly like this to me. The key songs are all either about starting out on this journey or finding out that the destination isn’t what you expected it to be. I’ve always heard “Laura” as a gay man saying goodbye to a good friend before he gets the hell out of Kansas and hits the yellow brick road. “Take Your Mama” probably happened sometime before that, two young gay dudes who’ve been sneaking around at the local gay dive who finally decide to bring one of their moms along, make her “one of the girls,” show her why her son’s engagement didn’t work out and why it’s all gonna be okay.
“Lovers in the Backseat” seems clearly about New York, but still has that vibe of the clandestine, the shadowy, knowing what you want but not being able to pursue it openly. There’s “It Can’t Come Quickly Enough,” where you finally meet the Wizard and he’s just some old guy behind a curtain. And then at last there’s the reason this analogy came to mind in the first place, “Return to Oz,” which invokes that film and The Dark Crystal to illustrate a New York scene ravaged by meth and other forms of living death:
Is this the return to Oz?
The grass is dead, the gold is brown and the sky has claws
There’s a wind-up man walking round and round
What once was Emerald City is now a crystal town
If those five songs, plus perhaps the elegaic “Mary,” are about the yellow brick road, the rest might be just the signs pointing the way. “Filthy/Gorgeous,” “Better Luck,” and (the only track I regularly skip) “Music is the Victim” all sound like the music Scissor Sisters (or at least the smalltown gay kids I imagine them to have been) probably grew up on — disco, Deee-Lite style party music, even tinges of (ugh, well, that’s how it is) honky-tonk. I’m not an Elton John fan myself, but if I’d grown up in a situation where he was what flew under the radar of disapproving parents, I might have been, and you might hear traces of him all through my songs too. Who knows what’s going on with the hilarious “Tits on the Radio” except that it’s the showpiece for Ana Matronic, who is Scissor Sisters’ irrepressible answer to Fred Schneider. And of course there’s the Bee Gees-flavored cover of “Comfortably Numb,” which is the genius move that drew me to this record in the first place.
It’s a classic album, one of the best first albums anyone’s ever had. It’s no shock that it wasn’t repeatable, but if you read it through my lens you can see why. By the time this album came out, they were already in New York — had been for years, were writing about it even now — and used up what I imagine to be their last reserves of memory about what the small towns they came from were like. The desperation, the yearning to get out to the big city, the ability to observe their surroundings as relative newcomers, all satisfied and evaporated by now, and so their second album had what to offer in terms of sentiments? “I Don’t Feel Like Dancin.” “Everybody Wants the Same Thing.” Well, no, they don’t, which is why you walk to the Emerald City in the first place, but maybe when you get there, they seem to. I don’t know; maybe if I’d spent more time with Ta-Dah I would have found something to hook me in it, but when it came out it just felt flat and uninspired. I was glad they seemed happy, but they were no longer interesting to me.
Night Work had some OK tracks on it, but nothing that made me want to buy it. Even a simple comparison of song titles is telling. Which sounds like something you’d be curious to hear: “Tits on the Radio” or “Whole New Way” (or, two songs later, “Any Which Way”)? “Return to Oz” or “Harder You Get”? “Lovers in the Backseat” or “Something Like This”? Or look at the album covers: Scissor Sisters is a woman walking out of a lush forest through a portal into a cityscape. Night Work is a butt. I like butts, guys, but that’s not why I liked you.
I haven’t heard Magic Hour. I probably won’t. All the magic was in that first record. Of course it was. The sad truth is that the place you’re dying to leave is the same one that made you the person who’s dying to leave, and you’ll never want anything again as badly as you wanted what you thought you were going to find at the end of that yellow brick road. Don’t get me wrong: start walking, any way you can, for sure, get out, run down that road for as long as your legs can stand it. Anyplace else is going to be better for your life. But for your music, for the things that give it depth and meaning and make it your own, sometimes there’s no place like home.
Morrissey, You Are the Quarry
This album was very nearly the headliner this year, but even though it wouldn’t technically have broken the rules, I’d already done a Smiths album. This was Moz’s big comeback as far as I was concerned; even though I’d mostly liked Southpaw Grammar and select tracks from Maladjusted, it felt like we might have heard the last of him. Instead he came roaring back with his most direct and confrontational album ever. Pretty much every track is a winner, trying something he’d never done quite that way before. “America Is Not the World,” “I’m Not Sorry,” and “All the Lazy Dykes” are probably my favorites, but grab any three tracks and you’re bound to come up a winner.
Tegan and Sara, So Jealous
Another album Pitchfork was wrong about. Insanely catchy songs, relentless guitar hooks, heartfelt vocals, a million (well, fourteen) potential singles. Still my favorite of theirs, though Heartthrob is really good. “Walking With a Ghost,” of course, but definitely also “You Wouldn’t Like Me,” “Take Me Anywhere,” “I Can’t Take It,” and pretty much all the rest.
The Killers, Hot Fuss
Another one-hit wonder for me; I don’t own and have no plans to buy any of the subsequent albums. But this one is fantastic. It seemed like they were trying to shrug off some of the 80s comparisons (or just stop people talking about Duran Duran and start them talking about Springsteen), but there’s no shame in what they did here. The four-song stretch from “Andy, You’re a Star” through “Believe Me Natalie” is my favorite, but it’s all pretty great, if you can grit your teeth through lines like “I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier.” I saw these guys live at a festival, and Brandon Flowers was clearly wasted to the detriment of a lot of the songs, but curiously he did manage to sober up for an excellent cover of “Moonage Daydream.”
- Universal Hall Pass, Mercury
- Franz Ferdinand, Franz Ferdinand
- PJ Harvey, Uh Huh Her
- The Futureheads, The Futureheads
- Green Day, American Idiot
- Annie, Anniemal
- Robyn Hitchcock, Spooked
- Eminem, Encore